Reflecting on Scott Ambler’s Essay
I spend a portion of my time reading articles and books to expand my knowledge, particularly as it relates to Agile. I read Scott Ambler’s essay, “Communication on Software Agile Teams” and there are several takeaways I’d like to share with you.
Effective communication is required in agile. In fact, the Agile Manifesto says we value “individuals and interaction over processes and tools.” This is a prescription, like a thyroid medication for someone who has low thyroid. You have to have it. You must communicate. The crux of this is, of course, what kind of communication?
Scott Ambler is well-respected database/software engineer, consultant and author. He is the Senior Partner at Scott Ambler + Associates where they are “helping organizations to successfully adopt disciplined agile strategies.” (I really got a lot out of his book, Refactoring, which is about making safe, incremental change to your data model as you go). In this article, Scott talks about the importance of communication, the different kinds of communication (or modes) and how to use communication effectively.
Effective communication is a fundamental requirement for agile modeling. — Scott Ambler
Scott’s essay refers to Alistair Cockburn’s “Modes of Communication” graph from his book, “Agile Software Development.” The graph compares the effectiveness of different modes of communication (like face to face, video conference, audio, etc.) with the “richness of the communication channel employed.” Scott modified the graph some, and you can see it here .
Suffice it to say, there are many modes of communication and their effectiveness varies. The least favored mode of communication, and considered least effective, is a paper document. While the most favored mode of communication, and most effective, is face-to-face communication. In fact, Scott explains that Alistair Cockburn’s preferred communication is “person-to-person, face-to-face, particularly when enhanced by a shared modeling medium such as plain old whiteboard…flipchart, paper or index card.”
I find it’s true that face-to-face communication with a shared medium is the best way to begin a relationship. It’s also a great way to walk through a problem. One of my takeaways from this essay is to employ a shared medium. I’ve had a number of face-to-face conversations that went well, but as I think back on them, I’m sure a whiteboard would have helped even more. And, really, even a napkin works in a pinch!
Scott provides two implications from Cockburn’s graph that we, in the agile world, should consider.
The first: we should strive to follow the most effective communication technique applicable for our situation.
We have an opportunity to look at each situation and discover which mode of communication is the best for our team. And, we need to remember that when we are in the same room with someone, skip the email and walk over for a quick face-to-face meeting.
In agile communication, we value:
when in the same room, face to face with a whiteboard (or other medium) over documents
when in different locations, video over documents
Scott points out that when you are in different locations, you need to connect in-person as well. So, the video is a solid form of communication, but it’s better when you fly out to spend time together in person. Video, audio, phone and in-person communication is further supported with email.
The second: “Be prepared to vary your approach throughout a project.”
I think this is an excellent reminder to us all: one method doesn’t work forever. Because team dynamics change, we do find that what worked six months ago really doesn’t work today. If we needed a daily conference call with a large audience early in our planning and in building our team, we may find months into the project that a daily conference becomes over-kill. And, there may be other times in the project when it’s appropriate to bring the larger group back together regularly. Scott suggests that the best time to discuss changing your mode of communication and frequency is during the retrospectives.
One of the observations Scott made about the effectiveness of different communication modes really caught my attention. He said that different modes work for some, but not for others. For example, developer to developer the instant message tool works very well and is highly preferred to other methods. However, stakeholders really don’t like chat and don’t use it. On the other hand, both developers and stakeholders prefer face-to-face communication over all other modes. And, interestingly enough for those of us who love detailed documents, developers and stakeholders really don’t value a detailed document as much as they value a comprehensive overview. I’ve not seen these observations made before, but realize in my own work how true they are with the different groups. Respecting and working with everyone’s best work mode is an excellent way to improve communication.
There are other factors that effect communication. There’s proximity, temporal proximity and osmotic communication. Scott clarifies that the closer we work together, in the same room for example, the better. In temporal proximity, when we’re working in different time zones, we are going to find communication much more challenging. I work in a lot of distributed team situations and address issues around distributed team communication and tools you can use in another blog post. He also talked about the positive and negative effect of “osmotic communication.” It’s a Cockburn phrase, actually, that refers to the content, references and feelings we pick up when we’re in the same room with our team. It’s beneficial because we hear things and pick up on things that help us understand more of what’s going on for our team or for the organization. It’s negative, sometimes, because we pick up on false rumors.
Finally, one of the factors that effect communication that I found most compelling was Cockburn’s belief in Amicability. “The willingness of someone to hear the thoughts of another person with good will and to speak without malice, is an important success factor.” The more amicability we have, the better our environment, our communication, our product. Ironically, this can be a disservice. If you think amicability means “going along” to “get along” you will create passive aggressive behaviors, hidden agendas, etc. When we say amicability, we want consideration, honesty and respect in our communication.
In all, effective communication is essential in our organizations. We need to look at the modes available, who is using them, how they are being used and how often. We should discuss and reflect on what’s working and what isn’t working. If projects are falling apart, we should take a look at our communication modes and the richness of our communication channels. We have a number of options, so let’s use them!